Health Department

Protect Yourself and Those You Love!

Protect Yourself and Those You Love!
By Larry D. Jones, MPH
October 17, 2012

Influenza, commonly known as the flu, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by viruses that infect the nose, throat, and lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. The best way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu vaccine each year. For everyone 6 months of age and older, getting vaccinated each year provides the best protection against influenza throughout flu season.

Most experts agree that flu viruses are spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. Less often, a person might also get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth or nose.

The flu is contagious and most healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning one day before symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after becoming sick. Children may pass the virus for longer than seven days. Symptoms start one to four days after the virus enters the body. That means that you may be able to pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick.

In general, the flu is worse than the common cold, and symptoms such as fever, body aches, extreme tiredness, and dry cough are more common and intense. Colds are usually milder than the flu. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose. Colds generally do not result in serious health problems, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections, or hospitalizations.

Vaccination is important for everyone, especially those at higher risk of severe influenza and their close contacts, including healthcare personnel and close contacts of children younger than 6 months. People who are at high risk of developing serious complications like pneumonia if they get sick with the flu include:

  • People who have certain medical conditions including asthma, diabetes, and chronic lung disease.
  •  Pregnant women.
  •  People 65 years and older
  •  Young children

Seasonal flu vaccines protect against the three influenza viruses (trivalent) that research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season. The viruses in the flu shot are dead (inactivated), so you cannot get the flu from a flu shot. About two weeks after vaccination, antibodies that provide protection against influenza virus infection develop in the body.

There are three different flu shots available: 1) a regular flu shot for people ages 6 months and older, 2) a high-dose flu shot approved for people 65 and older, and 3) an intradermal flu shot approved for people 18 to 64 years of age. Flu vaccine is also available as a nasal-spray for use in healthy people ages 2 through 49 years of age who are not pregnant. Talk to your healthcare provider to decide which option is best for you.

Influenza can occur at any time, but most influenza occurs from October through May. In recent seasons, most infections have occurred in January and February. Remember, the single best way to protect against the flu is to get vaccinated each year. Getting the vaccine as soon as it is available should provide protection for the season.